The Innovators

By Charisse Bennett

Book Review: The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson

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First, a trivia question… do you know the date when the first concept of the “computer” was initially documented?

And the answer… Charles Babbage is credited with originating the concept in 1833 with his Analytical Engine and Ada Lovelace is credited with first publishing notes about his Analytical Engine in 1843. That’s 183 and 173 years ago!

At the beginning of this book there is a timeline that starts in 1843 and goes up to 2011. It’s fascinating (maybe that’s the nerd in me). If you can’t read the entire book (it is rather long), I would recommend at least taking a look at the timeline and reading the introduction.

Even though it’s a long book, I had no problem getting drawn in and actually reading it pretty quickly (reading it on a Kindle helped since it’s a beast to lug around). Walter Isaacson is a great writer and is able to brilliantly weave the stories of the many individuals and groups that played key parts in the creation of the computer and the internet as we know them today. I especially found this book enlightening as I grew up with computers in the house before they were considered mainstream. I knew DOS at one point and remember when dial-up was introduced at our house.

The major point I want to make from the book is the importance diversity within teams has on innovations, rather than the theory of the lone genius. While the belief of an individual single-handedly creating the computer or the internet is inspiring and an easier story to tell, most of the innovations of the digital age were done collaboratively.

In order for many of these inventions to take place, diverse individuals had to be in the right places at the right times. They had to be able to collaborate and lead and push the team forward. These teams included government-supported, academically nurtured, community-organized, and hobbyists groups.

"Innovation requires having at least three things: a great idea, the engineering talent to execute it, and the business savvy (plus deal-making moxie) to turn it into a successful product." - Walter Isaacson

While it is possible for all three of these elements to exist within one person, it is more likely to come from a team of diverse-minded and skilled individuals. 

With diversity comes conflict and there are plenty of examples of conflict in this history, but the teams and individuals that were able to work through the conflicting points of view were the most successful.

‘Creative abrasion’... [is a leadership skill] in which a team of people can question each other, even try to eviscerate each other’s ideas, but then are expected to articulate the other side of the dispute.

Walter Isaacson

At Focus Lab, while we generally all get along, we encourage everyone to address potential areas of conflict or concern sooner rather than later. One of our core standards is “Keep it Real,” and we implement this within the office, as well as with clients. By clearly and openly discussing concerns with each other, we are able to see each other’s different points of view, move forward, and learn from each other. Rather than tiptoeing around the elephant in the room or talking behind people’s backs, we quickly address potential conflict and move forward. Most of us didn’t necessarily know how to do this at first, but over time we have all learned to have difficult conversations in productive ways.

"First and foremost is that creativity is a collaborative process. Innovation comes from teams more often than from the lightbulb moments of lone geniuses." - Walter Isaacson

Mr. Isaacson does a great job documenting the individuals that were working on similar inventions at the same time as teams, such as John Atanasoff. Atanasoff was developing an electronic computer in a basecamp at Iowa State with only one assistant, while teams were working towards the same goal at larger universities and through government supported programs. When Atanasoff ran into problems, such as with the mechanism to burn the holes for the punch cards, he didn’t have access to anyone with the skill to know how to solve it. Therefore his progress forward was stalled and eventually forgotten in that basement, later to be dismantled and discarded.

"Visionaries who lack such teams around them often go down in history as merely footnotes." - Walter Isaacson

There are several more examples in the book highlighting how different the history of technology as we know it today could be, had different groups not had the correct leadership or had certain individuals been more willing to collaborate.

"Brilliant individuals who could not collaborate tended to fail." - Walter Isaacson

At Focus Lab we strive to collaborate through open dialogue and sharing, not only on projects at work, but even personal obstacles. We all have something different to bring to the table. We also have great leaders that encourage and foster an environment of growth and development. We all have the power to lead our team to success.

The most successful endeavors in the digital age were those run by leaders who fostered collaboration while also providing a clear vision.

Walter Isaacson

Also related: The Imitation Game (2014 movie) - I watched this the other night and I think it was even more interesting since I read The Innovators beforehand.